Even though Mayte Sandrin is a physician with Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, she knew little about the system’s Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). And she certainly never expected to have two babies needing treatment in the unit.
She gave birth to her healthy baby, Marcus, in 2007. Her pregnancy was “fabulous,” she recalls.
Sandrin became pregnant with her second child in 2009. She felt well and was working regular hours. But during the twenty-fourth week of her pregnancy, it was discovered that she had a partial placental abruption – a condition in which the placenta becomes detached from the inner wall of the uterus, putting both mother and child at risk.
Four weeks later, she gave birth via emergency cesarean section to her son Mauricio. He weighed only 1 pound, 12 ounces, and his health had been compromised by the placental abruption. Adding to his challenges, doctors discovered that he had multiple heart defects.
Mayte, who works with adults as an endocrinologist, said she wasn’t sure how involved to be in caring for her son. “I was nervous about whether I should touch him. I was worried about germs.”
But NICU caregivers insisted she hold her baby, to talk with him and bond. “They were very supportive,” she said.
Mauricio’s condition worsened. He died after 24 days in the NICU.
Mayte and her husband, Marcelo, were devastated. But they were grateful for the efforts caregivers made to save his life and for their compassion throughout the experience.
Nurses encouraged Mayte to take photographs of Mauricio. She found one of those pictures later, and it has become a special keepsake. In the picture, she was holding Mauricio.
“He was looking at me, and imitating my smile. It brought back good memories,” she said.
A Third Pregnancy
Doctors assured Mayte that she was healthy enough to become pregnant again and that it did not appear likely that she would experience complications.
She and Marcelo experienced a spiritual renewal during this time. With prayer and a positive outlook from doctors, they decided to have another baby.
The pregnancy started off well, but in the twenty-ninth week, she was diagnosed with preeclampsia. Mayte was admitted to Spartanburg Medical Center.
A nurse noticed subtle signs of danger, and insisted that Mayte be wheeled in her bed to labor and delivery immediately.
An Emergency Surgery
Dr. James Scardo performed an ultrasound and discovered that Mayte was again undergoing placental disruption. Dr. Carol Ketchen performed emergency surgery to deliver the baby. By the time the surgery took place, the placental abruption was at 100 percent.
Without the expertise and decisive action of the staff at Spartanburg Medical Center, Mayte said her baby could have been lost.
The newborn, named Mateo, entered the NICU. Mayte, meanwhile, had to remain hospitalized for several weeks.
Though kept apart for seven days in separate ICUs, Mayte watched Mateo grow stronger through video calls made from a tablet, thanks to the help of her best friend and nurse.
The baby’s progress was steady, and he was allowed to go home after 51 days. He’s now 4-years-old and is “into whatever his big brother (Marcus is 8) is doing.”
And Mauricio is never far from Mayte’s mind.
“Though he only lived 24 days, he made an impact on my life,” she said.
She is grateful to NICU caregivers for encouraging her to spend quality time with Mauricio and to document their relationship.
“For them to make the suggestion to hold and carry and sing to your baby, and to take video and pictures, that goes way beyond what they have to do.”
“…knowing that somebody who’s been there cares can make a difference.”
Alayna Taylor lived only 99 days. But her short life has had an impact on many who never had the opportunity to meet her.
Alayna was born 15 weeks prematurely and was cared for in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Spartanburg Medical Center.
While in the NICU, caregivers tell parents that their experience is like a roller coaster ride: with celebratory times and some lows. These babies’ tiny bodies are vulnerable as their organs develop with potential complications. This was the case for Alayna. She made progress over much of her time in the NICU but suffered numerous setbacks. On May 9, 2009, after her kidneys and liver failed and Alayna passed away.
Her parents, Jared and Lacy, were grief stricken. They relied on their Christian faith for comfort and strength and were inspired to create a ministry to serve other NICU families. They call it Praise and Pray Ministries.
With help from volunteers and sponsors, the Taylors hold a golf tournament each year to raise money that pays for care packages for NICU families. These packages include practical items such as hand sanitizer, lotion and wipes. They also include a personal message from Jared and Lacy detailing their NICU experience and their reasons for wanting to help others. Jared and Lacy provide 250 to 300 packages each year since starting in 2010 and hope they help ease the stress a family is experiencing. More importantly, they want to communicate a message of hope and a sense of connection.
“Having a newborn in the NICU can be a frightening and bewildering experience,” Lacy said. “Knowing that somebody who’s been there cares can make a difference.”
NICU nurse manager Hope Garcia says the gift packages are given to families as soon as they arrive. She notes that Praise and Pray Ministries also provides gift cards during the holidays.
“There have been many occasions when that gift was the only means that a family had to have a Christmas,” Garcia said. “The Taylor family has touched many lives in our NICU.”
The ministry also involves what Jared and Lacy call “99 Days of Prayer.” For each day of Alayna’s life – from Jan. 31 to May 9 – they ask for “prayer warriors” to visit the waiting room of their local hospital’s NICU to pray for families and their babies. Participants are also invited to pray from home.
While Alayna was in the NICU, her doctors and nurses provided top-notch care, according to her parents. They were struck by caregivers’ compassion, skill, and attention to detail.
“God created a special person to work in a NICU,” Jared said.
Lacy is a nurse in Spartanburg Medical Center’s transfer center, but she says that until Alayna was born she didn’t fully understand the level of care offered in the NICU.
“Once you’ve been there, you know it’s a very special place with special people,” she said
NICU staff members encouraged Lacy and Jared to bond with Alayna. They held her and sang to her. They brought her a blanket from home.
“They let us be Mom and Dad,” Jared said.
When caregivers knew they had done all they could do and that Alayna would not live much longer, nurses “had tears in their eyes,” Jared recalls. The Taylors were told, “You need to hold her.”
“It’s almost like they felt a little of what we felt,” Jared said. “That meant a lot.”
The Taylors have two daughters now – Anna and Rayna. Lacy says they see pictures of Alayna and “think of her as their little sister,” even though Alayna is really their older sister. She says her experience as Alayna’s mother has made her more cautious of the children because she has seen that “we’re not invincible.”
And though she passed away as an infant, Alayna’s life continues to have meaning. Other families are helped because of the faith and generosity of her loved ones. And the ministry, in turn, helps the Taylor family. Lacy said, “It has helped us to remember Alayna in a positive way.”
It was late 2005, and everything had seemed to be going fine with what Dee Dee Wall calls a surprise pregnancy. In fact, earlier in the day she had an appointment with her doctor and all vital signs looked good. But on the evening of Dec. 2, she began to hurt.
She was only 26 weeks into the pregnancy but the pain was strong enough that she knew she needed immediate medical attention. Surrounded by caregivers at a nearby hospital, Dee Dee was told, “You’re going to have a baby now.”
At only 26 weeks gestation, Dee Dee and her husband John of 16 years understood what this could mean for their baby boy. “I was in shock,” she said.
A highly trained emergency transport team from Spartanburg Regional’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) hurried to pick up the premature infant and rush him to the NICU, where expert care awaited.
Graham Wall came into the world weighing 1 pound, 9 ounces.
“He was very little, but he was perfect,” Dee Dee said.
The new mom couldn’t see her child until two days later. Graham was in an incubator, so Dee Dee couldn’t hold him. He was hooked up to life-saving equipment that might appear intimidating and unnatural to a new mother.
“But I didn’t see any of that,” Dee Dee said. “My focus was only on him.”
Tiny Graham received 24/7 care in the NICU for 107 days. There were frightening challenges along the way, including “a week of horrific seizures,” Dee Dee said.
The Walls spent as much time as they could at Graham’s side, trusting in the care, compassion and expertise of the NICU staff at Spartanburg Medical Center. For more than three months, nurses and doctors were there for Graham day and night.
“They were wonderful; they’re family to us even to this day,” Dee Dee said.
Doctors, at first, were not sure that Graham would ever walk, and they told Dee Dee that he would likely be blind. But the outstanding care he received in the NICU set Graham on a course to exceed early expectations.
Now 10, he can walk and run like other boys his age. And while his peripheral vision is limited, Graham sees well enough to be on track in regular fourth-grade classes. He’s also a budding musician; he plays drums and the piano.
Dee Dee is proud of her son’s progress and wants to send a message of hope to other parents of premature babies. Her advice: “I would just say to always keep positive. It can be very hard. But these babies are resilient, and they are in the very best care.”
Levi Littlejohn is a ball of fire. At 16-months-old, he loves throwing balls, plays chasing games, and mixes it up with his two older brothers.
He also has a sweet side. “He’ll hug you and pat you on the head. He’s the most loving baby I’ve ever known,” said his mother, Cassie.
Cassie is proud of Levi’s unique qualities. But because of his tough beginning, she’s thrilled by how much he is like other kids his age.
A Rough Start
Levi started life in a precarious condition. Born via a scheduled cesarean section at a nearby hospital, Levi was not breathing properly. Caregivers immediately contacted the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) transport team at Spartanburg Medical Center (SMC), knowing that was his best chance for success. He was then brought by ambulance to the NICU at SMC, where he spent the first full month of his life.
For Cassie and her husband, Rick, the first few hours were something of a blur. She was recovering from surgery while her newborn was being whisked away to a different hospital.
She knew his challenges must be serious, but she wasn’t sure how severe or what treatment would be required. “I didn’t know what was going on,” she recalls.
When Cassie and Rick were able to visit Levi in the NICU, their tiny baby was undergoing a special treatment to cool the infant’s head. The treatment, they were told, would minimize the likelihood and potential severity of brain injury in infants who were oxygen deprived at birth.
“When we first walked into the NICU and went to find our baby, I will never forget it,” Cassie said, adding there was an “overwhelming” range of emotions that hit all at once. “I began to weep.”
It took several days, but caregivers were able to bring Levi’s temperature to a normal range. He was doing much better, but the path was not an easy one for the newborn. He suffered frightening setbacks and once had to undergo a blood transfusion.
Cassie was by her son’s side daily. She got to know his nurses and doctors over the course of four weeks.
“They were beside us constantly, updating us on everything going on,” she said. “The NICU nurses make you feel like family, like you and your baby are number one. Being the parent of a child in NICU … your whole world just stops.”
Even as Levi struggled, the Littlejohns had two older boys to care for as well. Nearby family members were a tremendous help, and once again, NICU staff members were a comfort.
“They’d ask about the older boys,” Cassie said. “They were more than nurses. They became our friends.”
Fast Forward 16 Months
On a recent morning, Levi played at the newly renovated Cleveland Park playground. He’s as alert and strong as any of the other kids his age – even ahead of schedule in some areas. It’s hard to imagine this playful, active boy once had to fight for his life in the Spartanburg Medical Center NICU.
But for the Littlejohn family, the experience is part of the fabric of who they’ve become. They have bonded with other NICU parents. They carry deep admiration for their son’s early caregivers, and Cassie said they remain in touch with friends they made among the NICU staff.
“I don’t think there will ever be a time when they’re not part of our lives.”
“…we love on them so much.”
Kathryn McMillan and Charles Morrow look forward to Wednesdays. That’s the day when they come to volunteer in the Spartanburg Regional Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), a place that has come to hold a special place in their hearts.
NICU volunteers rock babies who are crying and need comfort.
“It’s such a joy to see a baby who’s stressed and upset and to take them in your arms and they calm down and feel better,” McMillan said.
Some babies in the NICU were born prematurely. They might be as small as a pound and a half. The NICU also serves newborns who are full-term but arrive with a variety of illnesses. Morrow says the babies are often tense.
“I can hold them close and feel them tense up. They’ll have both hands squeezing my finger as hard as they can,” He said. “It’s rewarding when they relax after you rock and sing to them.”
Morrow has been a volunteer with Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System for about 15 years, McMillan for five. Both are retired and wanted to find a way to give back to their community.
The job of holding and comforting NICU babies is important. It allows nurses to attend to other patients’ needs. And research shows that physical and emotional comfort is important for growing babies.
“We spoil them rotten, because we love on them so much,” McMillian said.
All babies need lots of attention, and NICU babies need even more. As NICU manager Hope Garcia explains, many parents aren’t able to be there with their children as much as they would like – they have to return to work, need to tend to their other children, or have transportation challenges.
“Our volunteers are irreplaceable. They help us provide all the attention needed,” Garcia said. “They are proactive in helping the nurses and quick to help rock, talk, or read to a baby, which allows the nurses the time to tend to other babies’ needs.”
It’s not the only way volunteers make a contribution. McMillan puts together packages of supplies for nurses so that they’re ready when new patients arrive. These packages include many of the things that any new mother would like to have – like diapers, wipes, and towels, as well as numerous instruments needed to care for NICU babies.
She prepares these items so that nurses have more time to attend to their patients.
“It helps them to be able to just pick up a bag and have the bed ready,” she said.
Both McMillan and Morrow praise the work of the NICU caregivers they have worked with over the years.
“I look at the doctors and nurses here, and I see a lot of caring and tenderness. They treat each baby like it’s their own,” McMillan said.
Morrow adds: “Oh, they care about these babies. You’ll never find a more dedicated group.”
Caring for newborns in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) can be stressful and emotionally draining work. These are among Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System’s most vulnerable patients – some as young as 24 weeks gestation and as small as only a pound.
Because Spartanburg Medical Center is home to the only Level III NICU center in the area – and one of only five in South Carolina – newborns facing a serious health crisis may be brought to the unit for the highest level of care available. That’s where the NICU transport team comes in.
The NICU transport team is often the first to experience the stress of handling an emergency situation with a tiny newborn. When Spartanburg Medical Center receives a call that a baby needs immediate NICU care, a neonatal transport nurse, a transport respiratory therapist and a paramedic rush by ambulance to the hospital in need.
Upon arrival at the hospital where the baby was born, the transport team uses specialized equipment – and years of training and expertise – to tend to the newborn’s immediate needs and assess the infant’s condition.
In the immediacy of the situation, a number of things could go wrong, said Mary White, RN, and that’s where specialized training comes in. The highly skilled team is able to stay calm under pressure, in a job where focus and teamwork are critical to success.
Caregivers must establish an adequate breathing passage and make sure the baby’s blood sugar level is safe. They might use an umbilical catheter for quick central access to support the baby’s tiny body. Only when the infant’s condition is stable enough to transfer will the team will move the baby to Spartanburg Medical Center, where doctors and nurses are ready to receive the infant and provide round-the-clock intensive care until the baby is healthy enough to go home. Depending on the baby’s condition, this may take weeks or months.
Care in the NICU
Our tiny patients are placed in an incubator that is equipped with life-sustaining technology suited to the infant’s condition. For premature babies, caregivers keep the incubators covered for much of the day to keep out light.
“We’re trying to mimic the environment they should still be in,” said Ginger Hall, a NICU nurse practitioner.
Parents are in and out of the unit all the time. Doctors and nurses go the extra mile to make the parents feel comfortable, recognizing that parent involvement is essential to the infant’s care, especially as the baby grows and become more aware of surroundings. Mothers are encouraged to provide breast milk, and lactation consultants are available to help.
Along the way, caregivers develop a special bond with the babies and their parents.
“You really get attached,” said Lesa Gardner, a NICU veteran who knew back in high school that she wanted to work with infants.
When Special Care Isn’t Enough
Even in the expert care of a Level III NICU facility, unhealthy infants are vulnerable. They are susceptible to a variety of setbacks, and when a child dies, staff members do their best to comfort the parents – though they too feel a sense of loss.
“It’s hard on every one of us,” Gardner said. “We have to take a step back.”
“The hardest part is letting the parents know we’ve done all that we can,” Hall said. “When they understand that, they’re almost always at peace.”
Most babies make amazing progress in the NICU and eventually go home. As the babies grow, they become more communicative.
“They have their little personalities,” Gardner said. “When they’re here long enough to start smiling, that just eats your heart out.”
Each infant’s story can be an emotional experience for the transport team members who were first on scene and for all NICU professionals who care for a patient until he or she is healthy enough to go home. While the needs of other infants await, staff members take pride in those who are ready to move on, Hall said.
“We call them our little graduates.”
White enjoys the fast-paced excitement of the work, but what’s most important, she said, is the impact she has the opportunity to make. “You’re taking care of someone’s most important treasure. It’s an honor.”